The Winter Masterpieces Exhibition: Terracotta Warriors + Cai Guo-Qiang at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV International) in Melbourne will present a selection of the now famous ancient Chinese terracotta figures excavated from the underground tomb of Qin Shihuang, first Emperor of China (259 BCE – 210 BCE). Guardians of Immortality, the terracotta warriors are often described as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.
More evocative about the China of here and now will be Cai Guo-Qiang: The Transient Landscape, which will be presented in parallel with the warriors, featuring the artist’s contemporary art works inspired by Chinese culture and its enduring traditions.
Between the Peking man discovered by anthropologists in 1927 in a cave south west of the modern city of Peking and the Peking man of today there is a span of some 400,000 years. Each age believed it was modern in its time.
Shih-huang-ti, considered a demi-god during The Qin (Ch’in) 249 – 207BC dynasty remains its most famous Emperor.
He lengthened and consolidated the great wall, which marked the limits of his empire in the north.
The geographical location of his Qin state was unique among all the warring states of late Bronze Age China.
He occupied the former royal domain of the Western Zhou dynasty (1100 – 771 BCE) close to China’s pastoralist people’s in the north and the west. His court was also connected to the distinctive Shu culture in the south.
The Chinese race emerged fully and became known as Han Chinese during the Han Dynasty 206BC to AD 220, which followed The Qin. It is the period when a series, which became known as the Standard histories, began.
This meant a government department became responsible for keeping a day-to-day account of the present dynasty while writing the official history of the previous one.
Rather than evoking the gloom of the underworld where the figures were excavated from originally, acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang will provide a contemporary setting for both shows, providing a far more dispassionate forum for the community at large to assess them by.
His display of 10,000 porcelain birds suspended over visitors’ heads set against a three-dimensional impression of a calligraphic drawing of Mount Li, the site of the ancient tomb of China’s first emperor, will be sure to fascinate.
Replicas of two chariots and horses will be on display alongside well-chosen works from a number of early Chinese dynasties – such as a bronze tiger carrying a cub in her mouth dating from the Western Zhou Dynasty 1046 – 771 BCE.
The so-called terracotta army of warriors were first discovered in 1974 and first shown in Sydney in 1983. I was there at the time – the figures lauded as ‘art’, because they were considered portraits of real people.
This supposition has now very definitely retracted by those who first proclaimed it, the archaeologists. It seems the more they excavate and uncover the remains of the first Emperor’s huge object army, the more it has been realized the figures simply follow a hierarchical stereotype.
It has been estimated some 1000 people worked for three years to make the army of some 8000 warriors and their horses. To produce the figures in seven parts the hands were produced in the kilns of ceramic workers in one province, the feet in another, the torso, the head and so on.
Their size also had an impact on people’s perceptions, with the Generals in the army the tallest in the well-planned hierarchy. Meant to impress, they bring into the spotlight the man who commissioned them, the first Qin Emperor Shihuang,
Throughout history he has been known as a villain, tyrant, vandal, brute, barbarian, despot, hero, revolutionary, activist, saviour, leader and, above all, founder of the Empire of the Chinese peoples.
Some 700,000 conscripts were involved in the construction of his vast afterlife complex, which while underground is thought to be as luxurious as any of the above ground palaces the Qin Emperor maintained during his mortal life on top of it.
The shows together will enable supporters, visitors, members, friends and followers to enter into what I suggest, might become a feisty dialogue. It certainly did in Sydney when the warriors werwe on show there in 2012, controversially stirring the conversation at a symposium I attended.
Today the terracotta army are arranged in the pits where they came from, built to be part of the Emperor’s afterlife.
Originally found in hundreds of pieces, not one of the warriors were intact when found. Before they could be displayed at all they had to be completely and painstakingly restored.
While they have no battles to fight, they do seek to win the war for China about culture as art.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019
May 24 – October 13, 2019
Winter Masterpieces NGV